There is an old expression about NFL players: When you sign a pro football contract, you sign away your right to be middle-aged.
Many NFL players seem to drift overnight from being robust young men in their 20s and 30s to appearing staggered and elderly once they hit their 40s.
This isn't about superficial appearance, of arthritic knuckles or the altered gait that comes with age. It's about the long-term effects of brain injury and concussions. As William C. Rhoden wrote in The New York Times, "The legion of retired players has become a haunting presence for the National Football League and especially for the N.F.L. Players Association, which keeps one foot in and one foot out of the retired players' lives."
The health consequences of high-impact sports is not just an issue for old timers. Increasing numbers of present-day players are reckoning with the short- and long-term consequences of concussions and cranial trauma. This is partly because there is far more research and awareness about concussive injury. But the game is changing: Players today are bigger, stronger and faster than even ten years ago. In 1989, fewer than ten players weighed more than 300 pounds. Now there are more than 450. Washington Redskins safety Sean Taylor weighs 235 pounds and runs forty yards in less than 4.5 seconds. His job as safety is to do more than protect his defensive backs: It's to find people with the ball and with his scary combination of speed and power, remove their senses from their body. So the issue of possible trauma is not just for players who retired long ago.
This hit home when retired Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters committed suicide in 2006 at the age of 44. The coroner's report revealed that Waters had the brain tissue of an 85-year-old man in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Waters's horror story is only one of many. And the tragedy of the walking wounded was on full display this week in the halls of Congress, where a hearing was held regarding the condition of NFL vets.
Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., chair of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law, set the tone early on, observing that the NFL was a "billion-dollar industry and yet the players who built the league are too often left to fend for themselves."
Central to the hearing was former Chicago Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka, who said, "I just think that to go back and pick up these people and take care of them is not that big a problem. It's right versus wrong, period."
But it's not so simple. A group of NFL vets have seized upon this atmosphere in recent weeks to reframe the debate from what the game owes these players to what the NFL Players Association — the union — is not doing for those retired with injuries. Led by Hall of Famers Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure, their push has been for the removal of NFLPA President Gene Upshaw. A movement that should be advocating for the rights of retired players is beginning to look like a move to discredit and weaken the union, while the owners kick back and allow the carnage to proceed.
Let's start with Ditka. It's hard to take him seriously as an advocate for labor rights, when you recall he crossed the picket line in the 1987 strike. For all Iron Mike's "man of the people" posturing, he has the labor credentials of Sam Walton.
"It is the old divide-and-conquer move and, bluntly put, Ditka and his buddies are company men who never supported the union and were scabs when we struck," former NFL West Coast head — and former player — Dave Meggyesy told me.
Former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who played under Ditka for seven seasons, could hardly stifle his laughter upon hearing that Ditka was now deeply concerned for players' rights.
"Mike was not one who gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching," Duerson said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "He was very disrespectful of guys who got hurt and now he's trying to champion for a couple of guys. The fact of the matter is he's way off-base and he's late in the game."
This is why it is difficult to stomach Ditka when, playing for the cameras, he brings up the issue of players damaged by the game. At one presser earlier this year he told the unbearable story of Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who suffered from mental illness widely attributed to head injuries. Webster died homeless in 2002.
"I can't tell you today if Mike Webster would've been alive today," Ditka said. "I don't know. But I do know he wouldn't have been a damn street person. I know his family wouldn't have had to sue to get his benefits. It's not right. It's just not."
But Duerson, despite his consistent criticism of Ditka, believes more needs to be done for retired players, and they are going to have to organize to get it.
"I tell retired players, 'Come into their meeting 200 strong, you'll get whatever you want,'" Duerson said. "That's the only way these current players are going to come to realize, 'That's our brotherhood and we're very soon going to be there.'"
The union's track record on retired players under Upshaw is far better than one may think based on the coverage. As NFLPA President Troy Vincent pointed out to me, the last collective bargaining agreement saw pensions for players who retired before 1982 increased 25 percent. After 1982, they went up 10 percent.
DeLamielleure says that nothing has changed "in twenty years," but for people disabled by the game has seen annual benefits rise from $48,000 to $224,000. For non-football injuries, the rates have gone from $9,000 per year in 1982 to $134,000 by 2000.
Upshaw "has done an excellent job," NFL player Mike Minter said to ESPN. "You've got a lot of older guys who are hurting and it seems like we're not taking care of them. But where we started, when the man took the job, to where we are today, it's unbelievable. For anybody to say that this guy is not doing a great job, doesn't know."
In other words, the union's efforts are stronger than Ditka and DeLamielleure would have us believe. It raises the question posed by Meggyesy, about who benefits from attacking the union. The anti-union posture was on full display from DeLamielleure this past week. Upshaw told the press that he wanted to "wring his neck," an idiotic and impolitic thing to say.
But DeLamielleure's response conveys a great deal more. "At first, I was angry... but then reality sets in," said. "My wife was petrified. We grew up in Detroit. You know what unions are. You hear about it. She goes, 'Hey, this guy is a head of a union, a powerful union, [and] when he makes a threat like that, you'd better take it serious.'"
Yes, Tank Johnson and Sage Rosenfels are going to show up outside DeLamielleure's house for a good old-fashioned Detroit union beat down. Upshaw's "threat" made him look foolish. DeLamielleure's response — and partnership with Iron Mike, make him look like someone who would rather take down the union than fight for the rights of retired players.
Instead of current and former players fighting over finite revenue, maybe the owners should kick in. In February, before he turned his attention completely to Upshaw, Ditka told a story about trying to raise money for Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, the charity to aid infirm players. As the AP reported, "he sent letters to the 32 NFL owners asking for the same donation some time ago, he said he received one check for $5,000 and another for $10,000. He said he sent those checks back." But this has not been the target of Ditka's new crusade. It's hard to see how a divided union will help achieve goals for any players, past or present.
By Dave Zirin
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation